Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Vital Information draws vigorously on piano-trio tradition across two discs

Steve Smith is at the center of Vital Information,
Steve Smith says he wants to add some muscle to the piano-trio tradition, and the drummer has signaled the intentional transition  by titling his Wounded Bird release "Time Flies." The title picks up the bebop pioneer Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit," the familiar Latin phrase that means the same thing.

The Powell tune is one of several by composers outside the Vital Information personnel, which includes keyboards player Manuel Valera and bassist Janek Gwizdala.  George Garzone sits in on several tracks, lending the extra heft of his lusty tenor sax.

A second disc, focused on this quartet configuration, centers on a loosely integrated suite, with compositional credits shared by all players. "A Prayer for the Generations" comprises eight parts. Those divisions don't carry titles, leaving the listener to interpret how the free-flowing sections fulfill the suite's ambitious title.

I found "A Prayer for the Generations" involving on the whole. It seems sporadic in inspiration, however, and only vaguely cohesive. It could have been either longer or shorter, without much harm. But at least it spreads the group rapport further than the first disc's program allows. Disc Two has a kind of prelude that prepares the ground for "Prayer," as the quartet ranges nimbly over John Coltrane's "One Down, One Up."

George Garzone lends special oomph to VI.
"Emergence," the first disc's opening track, firms up expectations under the guidance of Valera, who sets the melodic and harmonic tone. Frequent breaks for drum fills, and the way Smith's drums bounce off the pianist's phrases, seem to present Smith's artistic credo. The rapid pace is sustained in the first borrowing from the Bud Powell book, "Tempus Fugue II," which spotlights the leader's deftness on brushes and includes Gwizdala's first solo of the set.

The brushwork is also well-considered and nicely detailed on "Darn That Dream," which features a tasty electric-bass solo against piano chords. When Powell is next turned to, on "Un Poco Loco," Smith takes a good drum solo, with his trio colleagues' punctuation, very much in the bipolar spirit of the piece. The ensemble unity is tight, driving. Those qualities are brought to the fore in a Smith/Valera original, "Choreography in Six," whose rhythmic intricacies Vital Information treats as second nature.

Among the heights reached when Garzone sits in is a powerful sojourn through McCoy Tyner's
"Inception," with some explosive tenor sax and Valera channeling the composer's signature two-fisted energy.  The trio's only other guest in the program is Mike Mainieri, whose vibraphone adds a little extra interest to Valera's pedestrian "No Qualm." The vibist's "Self-Portrait" is a quiet exercise in the pop-ballad genre.

Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" has an intriguingly dreamy interpretation, with Valera on electric piano again. A perennial jazzman's favorite — Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" — features Smith and Garzone at their best, with an oblique treatment of the familiar melody. The bassist's sole contribution as a composer is  "Erdnase," a ruminative finale that displays him aptly suave and plugged-in, as the leader varies his percussion style to emphasize gong and toms.

Smith has expanded upon his jazz-fusion reputation creatively with this release, and he has excellent help.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Yes, yes, nonet! Hickey-Shanafelt 9ollective oozes third-time charm at Jazz Kitchen

Bands less than big but not within small-group parameters have special attractions, eschewing the

Kent Hickey leads nine-piece band with Alex Shanafelt

sectional contrast and tussle of timbres of the bigs but giving room to a wider range of textures and harmonic variety than the combo. Another plus that totally lifts up the jazz spirit in such groups is the natural blurring of lines between solo and ensemble.

"If writing is to be jazz writing, it should fuse the elements particular to its own tradition -- the beat, improvisation within a disciplinary frame, and its own unique feeling," arranger/baritone saxophonist Manny Albam told liner-note writer Burt Korall for the issue of "Manny Albam and the Jazz Greats of Our Time." 

The title is a touch of hyperbole on this Coral LP, which I acquired as a teenager (wowed, I admit, by the all-star lineup*) circa 1960. I can't find any reference to it in either of the huge books on jazz recording I own, but I've always liked Albam's seven arrangements for ten adept players who must have enjoyed the gig. I hope they were decently paid.

Albam goes on to say, "I feel that an inter-relation, inter-dependence between writing and blowing in jazz composition is imperative." And that's what Kent Hickey and Alex Shanafelt have achieved many decades later with their nine-piece band, which appeared for the third time Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen

The nonet configuration is surely inspired by the size of the landmark "Birth of the Cool" bands of 1949-50, issued under Miles Davis' name but creatively engendered by Gerry Mulligan, John Carisi, and Gil Evans. I don't know if the Hickey-Shanafelt 9ollective knows anything about the Albam LP, but the band most consciously (I presume) extends exploration along  the avenues suggested by "Birth of the Cool."

Mug shot: Band has merch, too.

What a large audience heard Sunday night, all new arrangements and mostly originals conducted by Alex Shanafelt, connects with that blend of improvised soloing and written ensemble that Albam explicitly celebrated. Right from the start, in Hickey's "Dilbert's Dilemma," the manner in which Joseph Trahan's baritone sax lent feisty commentary to a tune (built upon "Along Came Betty" from the Art Blakey book") justified the blended approach. 

When a big-band arranger gives an extended showcase to a soloist it's a rare scenario for jousting between the one and the many. With a band this size, even a standout solo tends to be processed in context. (I have no idea if either the soloist or the arrangement intended the music to reflect on the trouble the comic-strip creator has gotten himself into recently.)

With Trahan picking up the bass clarinet in the next piece behind Garrett Fasig's alto-sax solo, the audience was treated to the impressionistic coloring of Alex Sjobeck's "Blue Light." This sort of dappled shading was a frequent occurrence in the set. Arranging for a nonet can dispense with the whole idea of sections and really get into the kaleidoscopic variety of individual instruments in combination. And the format allows a thoroughly prepared band to exhibit its flexibility in tempo changes, which came off mostly without a hitch Sunday night. 

Hickey's "Sublit Anticipation" provided for one of the evening's most outsized solos. Guitarist Eric Garcia absolutely shredded and strutted as the tune went for a wild ride, confirmed at a slightly lower level of  intensity by Tim Pieciak's trumpet solo.

Co-leader Kent Hickey is the band's other trumpet player, and we heard trim wonders from him on a variety of pieces, from George Shearing's bebop-saturated "Conception" to his own surging "World Noise," whose churning pulse accommodated both Hickey and Garcia in solos before giving way to a series of exchanges between them near the end.

Of all the band members, I'm most familiar with tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, whose solo outing on drummer Miles Damaso's "Forward Push" was among several turns in the spotlight. His brief allusion to "Bye Bye Blackbird" was a fine touch, slightly dismissive as a new piece with such a title might well imply. The composer's drum solo confirmed the message: "Hey, here's something new!"

Fasig's "Row Song" was notable for considerable solo space, highlighted by vaunting assertion from the baritone chair, with more than enough screech and shudder to flavor it, succeeded by a grainy, growling trombone solo by Andrew Danforth. Danforth's usual suave manner seemed more to be the focus of his own composition, "Homegrown," which featured another to-the-point Fasig solo and tasty ensemble harmonies as it approached its nifty, slightly nostalgic conclusion. 

This band makes a fresh, exciting contribution to Indianapolis-based jazz. Its fitness for all manner of well-designed expression, together with the excellence of its players in both improvisational and written aspects of their work, makes their appearances worth penciling in on any jazz lover's calendar. 

(*including Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, Osie Johnson, Milt Hinton, and Hank Jones)

Saturday, May 20, 2023

ISO takes a breather with Dvorak and two significant African-Americans

Thomas Wilkins heads conducting at IU's Jacobs School.

Thomas Wilkins,
this weekend's guest conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, prefaced the second half of Friday's concert with some gently impassioned words about music that celebrates breathing — even the sanctity of breath as a measure and sustainer of our health.

His focus was on the work the ISO was about to play, Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G major. His remarks implied that we need this kind of music — its geniality, its appearance of effortlessness — especially today. 

The performance delivered on meeting this need, even if the first movement felt a little more straitlaced than necessary. Let's consider this a runner's breathing, going all out. There could be no doubt of the performance's  rhythmic crispness. The ingratiating manner of the whole work was introduced, despite the presence of somberness that could be felt as a holdover of the Czech composer's tragic Seventh Symphony. That inviting spaciousness spoke up in the second movement, and was confirmed in the Allegretto grazioso third.

The Dvorak Eighth displays fascinating depths of craftsmanship, but doesn't give a rip about profundity. That makes it a special kind of  masterpiece for its era, the late 19th century. And that ease of breathing is properly identified as essential to its effect. Wilkins drew from the orchestra the requisite comfort level.

To single out one example, when the cellos return to the slow version of the last movement's theme and are joined in dialogue by the violas, the atmosphere in Friday's performance resembled the serenity and relaxed rapport of an old couple rocking on the porch and breathing in sync. Of course, the prevailing atmosphere of the movement is outright exuberance, and that resumes with particular impact as an earned renewal of galvanic energy.  It amounts to another kind of rocking that's also a celebration of breathing, right through the onrush of the final measures.

The program's first half opened with William Grant Still's "Wood Notes," four brief tone poems even more relaxed and openly picturesque than the Dvorak symphony. It's a modestly laid-out work with a distinctive personality worthy of the "Dean of Afro-American Composers," an honor mentioned in Marianne Williams Tobias' program notes. 

The controlled flow of "Singing River," which begins the set, had remarkable poise. In the second, "Autumn Night," it was evident that Wilkins had got across to the strings a resemblance he said (in "Words on Music") that he pointed out in rehearsal to French impressionism: shorter and lighter bow strokes embodied this similarity. "Moon Dusk" was flecked with nice, brief solos and rose to a movie-music climax. The rhythmic acuity that was to get further exposure in Dvorak came to the fore in "Whippoorwill' Shoes," in which the distinctive bird call was subtly elaborated and turned into a dance.

Lara Downes has worked extensively to bring repertoire to light.

Dance is specifically evoked in the final section of Florence B. Price's Piano Concerto in D minor, which brought guest soloist Lara Downes onstage. Price (1887-1953) had a remarkable life of struggle against racism and the rarity of a black woman's presence in the world of classical music. The recent vogue her music has enjoyed is puzzling except for what Price represents. Her entry in the New Grove Dictionary of American music calls special attention to her songs, to which I owe more attention. If only song recitals weren't so infrequent, the composer's song output might be leading the way in her revival.

The dance she celebrates is her interpretation  of the juba dance adapted in slavery days from West Africa. Downes in Words on Music praised this finale as "brave and authentic of her to draw on her heritage." But it seemed odd that the piano writing, while quite busy, merges into the orchestral tapestry entirely instead of finding a way to reassert the solo instrument in virtuoso terms. There was a strong suggestion in the first section that the piano would occupy the spotlight, as there's a considerable unaccompanied statement after a bland orchestral introduction that promises such a showcase. 

At any rate, the initial theme seems to rest on the bedrock of the "Negro spiritual," but the hint of elaboration is snuffed by some roiling sequences; development is short-circuited. The slow section is a matter of mood over substance. The writing for piano is attractive and was sensitively delivered, but the solo oboe's contribution to the conversation seems to want to be a lovely melody without ever becoming one. Once the piano is  thoroughly "symphonized" in the final section, one is left with the impression that Price may never have meant her posthumously discovered manuscript to be ready for public performance. 

Downes at least set a seal upon her worthy labors on behalf of piano music by African-Americans with her encore, "On Bended Knees," a short piece by Dvorak associate Harry T. Burleigh based on "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."


Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Osmo Vänskä''s Mahler cycle with Minnesota Orchestra scales a new summit in Ninth

Osmo Vänskä points the way toward 21st-century Mahler.

An impressive 2020 release of the full Tenth Symphony, completed by Deryck Cooke from Mahler's manuscripts, built up big expectations for Osmo Vänskä's Ninth with the Minnesota Orchestra. The recent issue of Mahler's last symphony to be solely his work fulfills those expectations in music inevitably interpreted as a premonition of death.

Not intended as a goodbye to life, despite Mahler's knowledge of his doubtful health in middle age, the Ninth quickly took on posthumous stature. That there is substantial work in his own hand on a No. 10 indicates that the composer was not bound by a superstitious fear of going beyond Beethoven's venerated nine symphonies. 

This recording (BIS-2476) will attract extra interest among music-lovers who believe that only the first movement of the Tenth should remain in the repertoire as Mahler's final symphonic statement. There's a genuine farewell aura to this release, in any case. On the Swedish label BIS, the Finnish conductor made distinguished contributions to the Sibelius discography; after 19 years as Minnesota Orchestra's music director, he retired in 2022, and is now conductor laureate.

The new recording stands tall among Ninths available. It has the romantic sweep and feeling of inevitability that Bruno Walter brought to a work whose premiere he conducted. It has the analytical thoroughness you can hear in the recording Pierre Boulez made with the Chicago Symphony. Interpretively, it makes a statement all its own somewhere in between.

The most telling excellence about it is the second movement, which draws upon the soil of Mahler's youth and the rustic waltz form Ländler. Mahler's wealth of specific directions in German always piques curiosity as to how genuinely they will be interpreted. At the head of the second movement there is "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb." "Täppisch" in my Langenscheidt's dictionary suggests "awkward" and "clumsy" as near equivalents. "Derb" covers quite a range, including compact, firm, solid, robust, sturdy, severe, coarse, rough, and blunt. So the movement should be played somewhat awkward or clumsy and very all those other things.

Vänskä and the Minnesotans cover them all, to my ears. That doesn't mean the playing is in any sense ragged; this is a most precise, considered clumsiness and coarseness. It very much represents the Mahlerian mastery of his material, the variety of orchestral voices he dresses it in, and the vast emotional spectrum he illuminates. 

I would also like to highlight this recording's sensitivity to the world of expressiveness with which Mahler treats the basic theme in the first movement. The eruptions of disturbance that come up are paradoxically smooth and enunciated handsomely. When it is time for those to subside, they do so naturally.

To pass on to the sublime finale, Vänskä guides the orchestra with a well-honed patience and proper indulgence in a reduction of forcefulness that no one but Mahler could have designed so effectively . Even listeners who get restless with Mahler's mood swings are likely to sink agreeably into the protracted settling down of all matters here. Somehow, you don't want it to be over, even though the music seems to enchantingly whisper to you, "It's over, it's's over." You're ready for it, and yet you're not ready. This recording carries you with that feeling right through the last note.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

ICO's 'Fidelio' makes strong statement, musically and dramatically

Fidelio (Leonore) protects Florestan from Pizarro's revenge.
Although opera draws its principal strength from a theatrical milieu, it is striking how complete a version of "Fidelio" can seem when semi-staged, as the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presented it Saturday evening. Beethoven's opera fits well into such a presentation, with the melodramatic libretto highlighting the composer's  idealistic concept of romantic love and hatred of tyranny.

With costuming reduced to simple suggestions of character in context and props that can be used or ignored, except as conveniences for group positioning (as temporarily released prisoners do around the furniture), the simple outlines of the story remain intact. The disguise of a political prisoner's wife with a rescue plan as a newly hired male servant to the warden — too absurd? Not when the dramatic illusion doesn't have to be very plausible.

Even better, and in such a small hall as the Schrott Center at Butler University, the spoken dialogue (in the vernacular as is usual) is intelligible without supertitles, reserved for the sung elements and quite legible. Everything comes together as a unit, in a way Americans have become used to in the musical-comedy genre.

Best of all, having the orchestra onstage behind the singers can minimize balance issues. And onstage monitors allow the singers to check their coordination with conducted accompaniments that are normally in front of them. On Saturday, the cast was free enough dramatically so that whatever checking they needed to do with the televised image seemed minimal. 

Conducted by Matthew Kraemer, the performance was sensitively detailed and capable of retaining momentum that bridged the spoken dialogue in order to project the music. The overture promised great things, with its characteristic contrasts foreshadowing the show's swings from hope through despair to triumph. 

Moments of suspense set up good showcases for the singers. The introduction to the prisoners' chorus floated on the promise of relief from confinement. The emerging incarcerated men express gratitude for a brief respite from Pizarro's cruelty, thanks to the humane jailer Rocco, and the benefits of sunlight and fresh air. The men, to be joined by women only in the final chorus of triumph, had been well prepared by Eric Schmidt.

Similarly, the introduction to Florestan's aria from his dungeon confines was suspenseful, allowing for his outburst of almost preternatural energy as performed by James Flora to make its maximum effect. And the showcase for Leonore, the other half of the heroic couple, beginning with the enraged recitative, "Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?", benefited from Beethoven's heroic writing for the French horns in the subsequent aria. Marcy Stonikas was enough of a vocal powerhouse not to be overmatched by the accompaniment, which presented the ICO players in excellent form. 

Throughout, the soprano was fully believable as the title character despite the awkwardness of a deception that audiences must provisionally accept. Stonikas' main dramatic responsibility in the role is to project Leonore's commitment to her bold plan and her faith in a marriage bond put to rather extreme tests of devotion. Jon Truitt, who played Pizarro with a bad-guy thoroughness that helped us understand what the heroine is up against, was also this production's stage director. 

Nearly every gesture and expression he elicited from himself and his cast seemed to fit. I only wondered at Fidelio's relative idleness when master and servant follow Pizarro's orders to dig a grave for the doomed Florestan. Stonikas did little besides hold a lantern, even though the sung dialogue indicates Fidelio and Rocco, a father-figure of genuine humanity in Kevin Langan's portrayal, should both be wielding shovels. Leaving the heavy labor to his presumed father-in-law-to-be — Rocco has blessed the proposed union between Fidelio and his love-smitten daughter Marzelline — would seem to send a risky message.

Beethoven was somewhat prissy in departing from the virtuous side of marital love. His sense of humor rarely permitted unseemly levity. He once said he couldn't imagine composing operas of the "Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" sort. I've read somewhere that a third Mozart opera, "Cosi fan tutte," shocked him with its blithe cynicism about women's faithfulness. 

But Beethoven is stoutly lighthearted about the interplay of Marzelline and Jaquino, a jailer in love with his boss's daughter and hoping to marry her. Scott Wichael and Rachel Policar carried off the romantic jousting between the two characters with credit. This indulgence in a comic complication is essential to show a further challenge to Leonore/Fidelio — how to fend off an inappropriate marriage while maintaining a disguise with a larger purpose behind it. 

The famous arrival of a minister representing the king is heralded by a trumpet fanfare of an even greater Judgment Day finality in another overture Beethoven wrote for this opera. The "Leonore Oveture No. 3" was mocked with  abandon in a parody by the 1961 Hoffnung Festival in which trumpet fanfares spill raucously throughout the hall and a street band marches in. You can't unhear something like that, and it was recorded.

Getting back to the real "Fidelio" — and not a moment too soon — this production's minister in the nick of time was sung by Jeremy Gussin with an appropriate basso uprightness about the restoration of justice. Immediately following, every character standing for virtue joins in a choral finale celebrating the strength of the marital bond, one that the composer never enjoyed. It wrapped matters up with gusto as the ICO was finally able to observe Beethoven's 250th birthday with a project the pandemic delayed by three years. It was well worth the wait. The absurdity fades, and the power of one of music's supreme masters prevails.


Saturday, May 13, 2023

Predictable: Male reaction to female innovation engenders heroism — American Lives Theatre's 'Predictor'

Taking intimate history a step away from staged documentary into essential theater, Jennifer Blackmer's "Predictor" lays bare the role of power relationships in trying to obstruct medical advancement. There are many ways of telling a real story in theatrical terms, and this new play plunges boldly and imaginatively into a tale of  cultural and marketing breakthroughs, focused on women's health care. The struggle to make widely available a home pregnancy test turns out to reveal social truths even more unpalatable than the laboratory exploitation  of animals that preceded it.

Meg gets used to new work environment.
American Lives Theatre's production, which I saw Friday as its second weekend started on the Basile stage at Phoenix Theatre, is vivacious and funny as well as informative. Under  the direction of Bridget Haight,  the cast is headed by Brittany Magee as Meg Crane, a freelance graphic artist who was absorbed and nearly neutralized after she started working for Organon Pharmaceuticals in the late 1960s. 

The facts of the case have been told here and elsewhere, but Blackmer's notable achievement has been to apply imagination and several styles of presentation to lift the story out of a history-centered account. This premiere production enjoys the benefit of six expert actors, in addition to the multifaceted Magee, who shift smoothly among a variety of clearly defined characters, some of them appropriately close to caricature. They are Christine Zavakos, Jen Johansen, Miki Mathioudakis, Zack Neiditch, Drew Vidal, and Clay Mabbitt.

Some are given more responsibility to portray people central to Meg Crane's story: mother, roommate, supportive boss, hostile boss, sympathetic (and somewhat more) male colleague. Meg's Catholic upbringing in an era openly supporting limitations on girls and women also gets extensive treatment, barbed and satirical as well as simply heartbreaking.

As fascinating as a good documentary — or even a novel's fictionalization — might be, this inspiring, occasionally agonizing, story lends itself well to versatile dramatization. Blackmer has not only probed the competitive interaction among ambitious people in the corporate world (traditionally white men) but also brought in mass media, chiefly in the form of parodies, as in a noisy TV game show  called "Who Made That?". 

That riotous episode sheds light on the original obscurity of Meg Crane's contribution. Her prototype test used a transparent small container meant to hold paperclips.  Scorned as too simple, too enabling, too outside professional control, the fact that it worked didn't seem to matter at first. Her claim to an invention that privileged privacy and convenience is rejected and mocked. Eventually, her magnanimity allows her to sign away patent rights once she realizes there's no other way to get her work validated by innumerable women needing an immediate answer to the question: Am I pregnant?

The game-show episode serves as a window into the campaign of suppression embedded in a pharmaceutical industry Meg had entered as a freelance graphic artist charged with developing marketable presentations of cosmetics for women. The show exposes the culture of misogyny American society once supported with little dissent; its legacy still exerts power more than a half-century after Meg Crane's eventual triumph.

Moving around chairs, desks and other furniture, the cast rotates into countless new set-ups and encounters. As much as I admired the movement and instant assumption of new roles and new phases of action, in the front row I was admittedly self-conscious of the need to keep my feet tucked back toward my chair. So I would recommend sitting on one of the four sides of the playing area up a step or two from stage level. In the front row on the room's west side, things were constantly busy just inches from me, but the illusion necessary to theater prevailed.

This caveat in no way takes issue with the efficiency and pace with which Haight has designed the movement of her actors. They need the full space to play amid Kerry Lee Chipman's brightly designed set, an adult romper room, with a sleek if dated modernism that also accommodates a real-life story to the flashes of imagination the playwright exhibits so well. 

The struggle for respect and taking important landmarks in women's lives seriously doesn't mean entertainment about it should be as hush-hush as merely talking about pregnancy once was. Attendance at "Predictor" is unlikely to have you expecting anything more than the play brilliantly delivers.




Sunday, May 7, 2023

Toby or not Toby: 'The Magic Flute' answers the question with flair

Unaccustomed as it is to fully staged opera, the Tobias Theater at Newfields accommodates most of the

Everyone's a winner: The full cast in reconciled finale of Indianapolis Opera's "The Magic Flute"

essentials in Indianapolis Opera's production of "The Magic Flute." The cast sang at a pretty high level, and the acting, while varying from character to character, had a long measure of authenticity. As seen Saturday night, the small orchestra was conducted ably by Scott Schoonover, and coordination with the singers faltered only in some passages by the offstage chorus.

It was understandable that a unit set would have to serve multiple purposes, and thus presented a kind of a jumble to the eye. But all of the Mozart opera's settings are fanciful to begin with, so to see the arches of the temple representing the triumph of enlightenment amid the rocky landscape into which the hero has wandered in the first scene wasn't hard to absorb. Special effects don't go much beyond thunder and lightning, but an imaginative use was made of a device as simple as handheld flashlights when the Three Ladies (well sung by Anne Fuchs, Victoria Korovljev, and Katherine Kincaid) offer guidance to Tamino and Papageno during their dark trial.

At the start, Tamino, the princely hero, comes on the scene looking for an escape from a pursuing serpent. The creature is not represented at all by a cameo appearance. It's true that it's uncommon for the menacing reptile to avoid looking ridiculous in other productions. But I kind of missed the snake. Here, its comeuppance is delivered offstage by the Three Ladies who attend the Queen of the Night, who is soon to appear as the show's spectacular villain.

More disconcerting is Tamino's costume, which looks formal and military, epaulets on the shoulders, not the hunting outfit that explains his wandering away from his realm. Regardless, he is a stranger ready to be beguiled by a portrait of the captured Pamina, presented to him after he meets the bird-catcher Papageno. The native works for food and drink from the Queen of the Night, who in this production wears a darkly shining costume, imposing enough striding about as she rants and complains about her missing daughter in virtuoso phrases.

Director A. Scott Parry works sensibly with any limitations the Toby presents. While stunning vocally, Hein Jung moves among her colleagues, singing with focused ferocity  rather than enthroned afar, surrounded by stars. In fact, showing how the characters relate to one another benefits by reducing the mythical and symbolic elements that often attend "Magic Flute" productions. Here implausibilities are linked to believable human emotions and conflicts; any loss of magic may be seen as minimal and often practical. The natural earnestness and clear vocal projection of Grant Knox as Tamino and Rebecca Krynski Cox as Pamina went far to establish the sympathy they need from audiences otherwise entertained by the comedy, the spookiness, and the recondite Masonic aspects of this opera. 

The production's most crucial omission is the reduction of the testing trials of the young couple by water and fire in pantomime. Here they move straight into acceptance by Sarastro's priests after they meet the challenge of maintaining silence. Proof of their rectitude and courage is thus somewhat shortchanged, and Pamina's role in boldly leading her beloved recedes in a way that minimizes the opportunity to present a strong woman to today's audiences.

Today's audiences are understandably likely to be offended by the original's buffoonish, lascivious caricature of a black man in Sarastro's servant Monostatos. But he ought to have been made outlandish in some other way; it was not enough that Will Upham portrayed him well. The brief, unplanned encounter between Monostatos and the exploring Papageno, which frightens both men into fleeing, is hard to understand if they don't look exotic to each other. 

For that matter, Papageno's costume ought to have featured more the feathers he uses to  hide his humanness from his feathered prey. In all other respects, Jason Cox exuded a comically appealing life force as Papageno, rich vocally and in an effusive variety of movement and expression, complemented eventually by Rachel Purvis as Papagena, the birdcatcher's long-desired match. He even played the pipes Papageno uses to attract the birds, a five-note pattern introduced as a personal signature in his entrance aria.

With an excellent, regal Sarastro sung by the Ghanaian-American bass Kofi Hayford, it might have been apt to challenge contemporary sensitivities by casting a black man as the duly punished Monostatos. It would have helped put across the evenhanded interest in justice characteristic of Sarastro, a leader unwilling to favor an erring servant just because he was "blood." 

This delicate matter brings up the dated and (some might hope outdated) triumphant masculinity in the libretto. This is not the first production of "The Magic Flute" I've seen that ends in a reconciliation of the opposing forces. Sarastro's project of human betterment is celebrated in chorus as universal and available to everyone, even the Queen of the Night and Monostatos. "Our side won, your side lost" is a consummation still devoutly wished in a world that honors victory, with clear labeling of good and evil. 

In a lengthy program note, director Parry handles his more pacific interpretation by bringing in Jungian insights into the mixed nature we all harbor and the need to find balance between opposites. This would find it appropriate, for example, to honor the Queen of the Night's maternal loyalty with forgiveness for her misleading representation of Pamina's plight. Without a search for balance, we can all be led astray by allowing our dominant aspects to take total control, runs the Jungian approach, as I understand it. 

The idealism behind the Freemasonry to which Mozart subscribed presumably allows for this kind of modern adjustment of the finale and the libretto's earlier warning against listening to women. So seen, "The Magic Flute" has an acceptable modern significance to add to its still vibrant capacity to delight. And that was evident in Indianapolis Opera's production, which concluded this afternoon.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Saturday, May 6, 2023

ISO welcomes a superb young cellist in his instrument's best-known concerto

The only anxiety generated by Pablo Ferrandez's debut solo performance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Friday night was the security of his cello's end pin.

Colombian-American conductor Gonzalez-Granados

Otherwise, the Spanish cellist delivered a transcendent account of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor, in which pin slippage on the platform vanished among all other earthly concerns. Playing his Stradivarius "Archinto" instrument (1689) to maximum effect, Ferrandez wowed one of this season's largest Classical Series crowds at Hilbert Circle Theatre. 

The end pin, tightened several times, held firm. So did his interpretation, both swooning and commanding as the need arose, as well as his rapport with guest conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados and the orchestra. In his pre-concert Words on Music appearance, Ferrandez mentioned his satisfaction with the heroic quality of the solo part, entering in B major after the hefty orchestral introduction in the minor mode. 

Ferrandez sustained the heroism he believes characterizes the repertoire's most famous cello concerto. He did so with simple authority, without grandiloquence, and the labor required to put across this masterpiece did not offer any evidence of strain, even though he broke a sweat now and then.

 ISO contributions to the soloist's mastery showed up in such details as the steady, delicate string

Pablo Ferrandez is portentously shadowed.

tremolos succeeded by a cello-flute dialogue in the first movement, and, in the second, the way swelling phrases from the orchestra were reflected in the solo. Throughout the Adagio ma non troppo, there was consistent plasticity of cello and detailed accompaniment, scrupulously guided by the conductor. The finale displayed Ferrandez's aptness for the tricky passage work and mastery of the instrument's full range — everything in the technical department at the service of his artistry and collegial responsiveness.

For an encore, Ferrandez had the cello section gather around him for an arrangement of Dvorak's "Silent Woods," which afforded more welcome exposure to his radiant tone. At 32, Ferrandez presumably has several more decades of eminence as a concert artist ahead. Somewhere along the way, it wouldn't be surprising if he acquired an aura among the public similar to that of another Spanish cellist named Pablo long ago.

Gonzalez-Granados established her acute control and nimbleness as the concert got under way with two of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances. After intermission, there was a major exhibition of what she has to offer on the podium. The heroism long associated with Shostakovich is more flecked with irony than what Dvorak displays in his cello concerto. Symphony No. 5 in D minor, hailed as an acceptable response in the Soviet Union to severe criticism of the composer, has been a favorite all over since the 1930s, and among the few 20th-century symphonies with a stable position in the international repertoire.

The gloriously ambivalent first movement received an aptly nuanced performance Friday night. The energy it stirs up was under tight but never suffocating control. You could feel hints of the conditions Shostakovich was force to work under. The eerie ending of the first movement, with its tentativeness and attempted grace under pressure (the upward creep of the celesta), brought to mind the necessity Shostakovich and many other artists felt to keep a packed suitcase at home near the front door in case of an unannounced visit from police bearing one-way tickets to the gulag.

The division and reduction of the string sections in the Largo were smoothly handled, allowing its song of lament and tense worry to emerge in somber layers of expressiveness. It was also appropriate that the outbursts of humor in the second movement Allegretto sounded heavy-handed, as if any merriment under Stalinist oppression had to carry grim watchfulness with it. 

As for the finale, it's hard to be certain whether Shostakovich was yielding to a tendency he always had toward brashness and overstatement, or whether he was mocking the platitudes of socialist realism that governed artistic expression most of his life. In any case, the climaxes in Friday's performance were stunning, the brass choir in fine fettle for the most part, and Gonzalez-Granados had the whole ensemble painting in vivid colors. The program will be repeated at 5:30 p.m. today.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Spiked punchiness: Mark Harvey Levine's 'Didn't See That Coming' at Fonseca Theatre

Anticipation works its ceaseless promises and challenges on everyday life, so it has to be also a front-and-

Job interview about to go horribly wrong in "Didn't See That Coming"
center aspect of the theatrical experience. 

Tilted toward comedy, sensing what's about to happen is bound to involve hilarious missteps and surprises, so the title "Didn't See That Coming" perfectly represents the series of short takes Mark Harvey Levine has created in a show that opened Thursday at Fonseca Theatre.

A production of the Southbank Theatre Company, "Didn't See That Coming" has a variety of settings, mounted on a circular platform revolved by hand for scene changes. It opens with specific evocations of issues theater raises internally, here applied to real-life situations. How repeatable and ordinary is the everyday, and how much might we vainly wish to vary it? How can being able to see what's coming interfere with the give-and-take we expect and adjust to in real life? 

That's what we encounter in "Scripted," in which a married couple wakes up to discover an unsettling script on an end table that prescribes everything they will say and do that day. Then in "Surprise," Levine rings changes on how disconcerting a close relationship becomes if one partner is short-term psychic and the other must live each moment as it comes. Spoiler alert: It will not end well.

Having enjoyed about a half-dozen memorable Levine playlets produced for the late Bryan Fonseca's past "Very Phoenix Xmas" productions, it is no wonder to me that his new show draws upon customary professional challenges: his creative outbursts have to be interpreted by actors. What's scripted has to sound fresh, and what actors necessarily anticipate after so much rehearsal must often surprise the characters they play as much as it does the audience. 

Psychic twist: a damp breakup while dining out

Fortunately, "Didn't See That Coming" goes beyond dramatized shoptalk to cast the playwright's net across a variety of incongruities. Director Anthony Nathan and his cast of six vigorously follow Levine's wild lead. The eight playlets let up in manic intensity fruitfully in two Act 2 sketches in which genuine lessons about parents ("The Folks") and intimacy ("The Kiss") receive wry, oddly uplifting treatment. The norm is bracing juxtaposition, however, and there the laughs flourish.

Levine's comedy recalls English man of letters Samuel Johnson's withering assessment of  17-century "metaphysical" poetry, in which "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions." After more than two centuries, we have a calmer way of processing such literary violence, so Johnson's objections seem quaint, but also have startling relevance to common-practice comedy today. 

Johnson grudgingly admired the wit of the metaphysicals, and Levine's work richly abounds in that quality. In "The Rental," a sketch about an unexpected boyfriend-for-a-day gift from a friend, the female recipient has to sign a contract and initial it in two places. It's a small detail, and characteristic of Levine's witty ransacking of contemporary life for "illustrations, comparisons, and allusions."

The material obsessions of childhood get an uproarious send-up in "Defiant Man," which opens Act 2.   The sketch brings back a man's juvenile enthusiasms in physical form: beloved superhero action figures. A couple is going through boxes of such memorabilia, with the wife pushing her husband to discard or sell the long-forgotten items. Magically, she doesn't see or hear the life-size simulacra, the more vocal and demonstrative of whom is delightfully played by Paul Hansen in the title role. In his strident terms, maturity is seen as putting away childish things, but undesirable, as it also means self-exile from an imagined Eden. The other actors have the same practiced knack for fitting snugly into a huge span of roles. They are Angela Dill, Terra McFarland, Alex Oberheide, Ryan Powell, and Michelle Wafford.

Cavemen: Roommates freak out as one struggles with reality.

Distinguishing the real from the false is of course a staple of comedy. Levine goes to the edge of philosophizing about it in this sketch's neighbor, "Plato's Cave," which concludes Act 1.  The cast brilliantly negotiates a clutch of quick-change scenes depicting the central character's transport across several planes of reality  — from channel-surfing with a roommate to classroom to coma to family life — as he tries to get a grasp on where illusion lies. If you turn around and look outside the Greek philosopher's cave of appearances, you perceive ultimate reality, he notes hopefully. In theater, sense perception has to be taken for granted, so the sketch evoked for me more strongly the Cave of Montesinos in "Don Quixote," where illusions take kaleidoscopic turns through  ill-founded idealism and reality's hard knocks. 

The pop-culture genre in which macabre fantasy intersects with the everyday is the basis for the climactic sketch, "The Interview." A candidate for a job in protection against zombies is grilled by an HR executive. The rigors of the job interview get effectively skewered, with the applicant providing one presumably winning answer after another, then desperately switching sides after the interviewer's wounding transforms her. 

The horrifying adventure opens up lots of satirical avenues for Levine. Today's social and workplace pressure to be open to all sorts of alternative identities is forced upon the applicant. Diversity, equity, inclusion, anyone? See how that works when it comes to zombies.

But because we are inclined to react, with a shrug or a gasp, "Well, I didn't see that coming," who knows what kind of preparation will save us? Levine's variety of comic perspective may be our only fleeting hope. The show continues through May 14. 



Thursday, May 4, 2023

Jerusalem Quartet extends a warm farewell to EMS' 2022-23 season

Presenting the twilight of classicism and of romanticism  in the same program might seem like too much dusk, but the Jerusalem String Quartet cast lots of daylight on Mendelssohn, Webern, and Tchaikovsky Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center to conclude Ensemble Music Society's current season. 

The name "Webern" might have spurred an anxious chill in some patrons previously unaware that the Austrian composer's 1905 "Langsamer Satz" (Slow Movement) is a lengthy exercise in the late Romantic idiom he was soon to cast off as a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Webern would go beyond the older composer as an avatar of 20th-century modernism. (He was to be shot dead 40 years later by a jittery American soldier just after World War II.)

Tight-knit Jerusalem Quartet charms audience here.

Slow Movement occupied a central place in a program bookended by Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, op. 44, no. 2 and Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1 in D major, op. 11. Melodic emphasis as the 19th century had developed it is conspicuous in the Webern piece. Hints of where Webern was to go away from romanticism are offered late in the work, with accompaniment patterns that sound more individualized and in contrast to the generating tune. The Jerusalem Quartet made a strong case for better acquaintance with the particular twilight era from which Slow Movement emerged. 

The concert opened with a Mendelssohn performance characterized by deft passing around of its main material in the first movement, similar to Classical Era procedures. It was succeeded  in the second-movement scherzo by speedy, nonchalantly "shuddering" phrases shared among the four players. Landing firmly in an era of romantic inflection that Mendelssohn was temperamentally guarded about, the third movement presents the tender, emotionally yielding side of the North German composer. The finale, in this performance, put a cap on the Jerusalem Quartet's dashing, well-coordinated manner.

Years of excessive concert exposure to the music of Tchaikovsky have left me jaundice-eyed about the Russian composer's achievement. Yes, this string quartet is a milestone in the burgeoning of Russian chamber music, and Tchaikovsky came to represent the entrance of the giant Slavic country into the Western canon. But it also, especially in the first movement, exemplifies his wearying tendency to ramp up the excitement with little of substance behind it, relying on sequences more tendentious than Vivaldi's, for example, to stimulate players and listeners alike. The unplanned relief of a broken string after it launched allowed first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky to go offstage to replace it. When he returned, everyone was ready to sink into Tchaikovsky's toying with our nerve ends uninterrupted.

The melodic gift is undeniable, and we get one of the most famous examples in the Andante cantabile second movement. Hymnlike in texture, the music even ends with an "Amen." The rhythmically enlivened third movement is mercifully compact, showing off at a distance Tchaikovsky's affinity for the ballet, which is  even more prominent in the finale. There, the dialogue between Pavlovsky and Ori Kam, the quartet's violist sporting an uncommonly rich tone, was an example of how firm the rapport among its members seems typical of this ensemble.

Further confirming the love affair between the Jerusalem Quartet and the near-capacity audience Wednesday night, the encore by a Ukrainian composer (two of the quartet's members were born in Ukraine) was greeted with rapture. The piece is an arrangement of the late Myroslav Skoryk's simply titled "Melody," and it represented the ultimate in the relaxation the Jerusalem Quartet can project along a spectrum whose other end radiated propulsive energy.

Monday, May 1, 2023

'Gennett Suite' celebrates a century of Indiana legacy in recorded jazz

Among the more unlikely places for the new musical genre called jazz to have made a significant entrance was a piano factory with a small recording studio in Richmond, Indiana. Yet a century ago, Gennett Records won its place in history by bringing to the small town near the Ohio border some of the most significant figures in American popular music in its burgeoning jazz form, all under the provincial Starr Piano Company's umbrella. The music had burst onto the cultural scene in New Orleans and Chicago, and was soon to win its most prominent home in New York City.

Among Gennett's early captures on record was Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo, on "Chimes Blues" with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band in 1923. It gave exposure as well to Indianapolis' own Hoagy Carmichael and provided an early niche for the short-lived Iowa cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

These figures get adequate recognition in Brent Wallarab's "Gennett Suite," a centennial tribute designed for the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, which played it at the Jazz Kitchen Sunday evening to a receptive, even adoring, audience. A wish for more representation of Jelly Roll Morton in the suite is perhaps not out of place; the final part  now turns its attention more to Carmichael. Wallarab brings forward in fresh costuming music closely associated with Carmichael, Beiderbecke, and the Oliver-Armstrong alliance. 

Brent Wallarab and Mark Buselli founded BWJO in 1994.

The arrangement of new textures and harmonies in old music, linked to a succession of solo spotlights for many of BWJO's excellent players, bridged the decades magnificently. Original settings are honored to some degree, but a 21st-century perspective is embedded throughout.

In solos, there are historically steeped showcases for pianist Luke Gillespie in particular. I also enjoyed how co-founder Mark Buselli kept his flugelhorn solo out of bop and post-bop territory in channeling Beiderbecke. Like any pioneer, of course, Bix foreshadowed later developments. It's still amazing to me to listen to "Singin' the Blues" (a later non-Gennett recording not comprised in this suite) and catch flashes of modernism, including the cutest "break" of the era, within a set harmonic framework. Wallarab has the wisdom to see how the new music of a hundred years ago sends its prophetic notes into our own post-pandemic world. And I'm satisfied with the suite's avoidance of the corny spoken shout "Oh, play that thing!" at the climax of King Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues." "Gennett Suite" belongs firmly to our own time as well as to the enduring power of cultural tradition.

The work has been more than four years in the making, and was developed by Wallarab in his capacity as professor of jazz studies at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. So the educational aspect of the project has now blossomed into a fully professional, and soon widely available, document. Recordings of the suite on CD and vinyl are promised for public release later this spring.

It adds to the distinguished BWJO discography as well as to a celebration of the Hoosier jazz legacy. Everyone can then spread their own shouted or spoken "Oh, play that thing!" over anyplace in "Gennett Suite" when they play the recording.